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 Monomoy Point, MA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.
Description: Monomoy, once a peninsula about eight miles long reaching southward from Chatham at the elbow of Cape Cod, has now been split by erosion and storms into two islands known as North and South Monomoy. The constantly shifting sands of South Monomoy have placed about a mile between the lighthouse and the shore, leading Monomoy Light to be compared to a “minaret in the Sahara.”

With Nantucket Sound to the west, and the frigid Atlantic Ocean to the east, dangerous “rips” where the two come together over shallow shoals and bars have led to a number of shipwrecks, and earned it the ancient French name of Cape Malabar—the “Cape of Evil Bars.” “There is no other part of the world, perhaps,” wrote, the director of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1869, “where tides of such very small rise and fall are accompanied by such strong currents running far out to sea.”

While some waterfront cities were also supported by agriculture, Monomoy residents never had that option—“its most luxuriant portions produce beach-grass”; nor was there any manufacturing or industry. Monomoy residents relied solely on the bounty of the ocean.

A fishing community, Whitewash Village, thrived on Monomoy in the early 19th century. Fishermen caught cod and mackerel, as well as lobsters (sold for 2 cents each to mainlanders). The resultant swell in marine traffic demanded a lighthouse, but before Monomoy Light was built, lightships were posted in the area.

There were residents of Whitewash Village known as wreckers, who enjoyed another bounty from the sea. Wreckers prayed for (and some even tried to cause) shipwrecks, which they would quickly strip. Although the incidence of wrecks was high, the loss of life was low.

1849 Monomoy Point Lighthouse with braces
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
On March 3, 1823, the U.S. government approved $3,000 of which $2782.72 was spent for Cape Cod’s fifth lighthouse, located on Monomoy Point—also known as Sandy Point. The light was in the Cape Cod style with a wooden tower and iron lantern room atop the roof of the brick keeper’s dwelling. The lantern room contained eight lamps with thirteen-inch reflectors that shone a fixed light a mere twenty-five feet above sea, beginning on November 1, 1823.

But even the building of the light did not put the wreckers out of business. The ever-shifting sands and changing shoals continued to fool even the most experienced captains. Big Hugh, a look-out, would cry, ‘Wreck ashore!,’ and Monomoy House would clear out without even a “By-r leave.”

An 1838 inspection by the critical Lieutenant Edward W. Carpender found the light station to be in “sufficient order,” which from Carpender was almost high praise.

Solomon Doane became keeper with an annual salary of $400 in 1841. He complained to Inspector Lewis that the house leaked where it joined the tower and that “the lantern has been so racked by storms that it shakes so as to break the glass continually.” He was allowed a boat, but there was no boathouse. The oven had fallen to pieces and could not be used. He was forced to rely on neighbors for water, because there was neither well nor a rainwater cistern. But not until 1849, eight years later, would his complaints be addressed when a cast-iron, cylindrical, brick-lined tower about 40-feet tall, a keepers house, and brick oil house were built. A contract shows that Cyrus Alger built the tower, and Pelham Bonney built the two-story, wood-frame keeper’s house.

The lighthouse received a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1857, but a recommendation, repeated annually from 1871 to 1874, to upgrade to a second-order Fresnel lens with red flashes was never acted upon. During the same period, the harbor that Monomoy Lighthouse was established to help guide vessels into filled with sand. The light was essential for ships traveling between New York and eastern ports, as the nearby lightships were not visible “at a sufficient distance.”

By the 1860s, a hurricane and the sudden departure of the fish helped bring an end to Whitewash Village and its wreckers.

Monomoy’s isolated location led to keepers staying 5½ years on average, and records indicate there was one woman among Monomoy’s keepers.

From 1865 to 1875, John B. Tuttle, a resident of Harwich who had been wounded in the Civil War, served as keeper of Monomoy Light. Tuttle received $700 per year, and after ten years, passed the position to his stepson, Asa L. Jones, who had also been wounded in the Civil War. During Jones' service, the tower was painted bright red in 1882 to increase its daytime visibility.

In 1892, iron trusses were added to further stabilize the tower and prevent vibration. Although the tower had been rebuilt in 1849, it had remained shaky enough to break the tube glass used in the lamps.

A telephone line was built in 1898 to connect Monomoy Light with the nearby Monomoy Life-Saving Service station, under a national defense appropriation. In 1899, $2,600 was requested to rebuild the keeper’s house due to deterioration and heating problems coming from “cold winds blowing off the fields of ice.” The following year, the requested repairs were performed.

Also in 1899, James P. Smith, a native of Copenhagen and a former assistant keeper at Boston Light, took over as keeper. While Smith’s wife died near the beginning of his time at Monomoy, three of his four daughters proved a great help.

Following the wreck of the Elsie M. Smith in February 1902, Smith had to be assisted by his daughters Emma and Annie to pull the body of a Nova Scotia fisherman from the surf. Emma estimated that with his clothes full of sand, the fisherman must have weighed 300 pounds.

At the time of a 1904 article, Smith’s girls were 24, 17, and 13 years old (a fourth daughter lived elsewhere). Smith’s 24-year-old Annie took over household duties and tended the light during his absence.

When asked by a reporter if it was lonely at the light, Annie replied, “Oh, no! We don’t have time to be lonesome. There is always something to do, with the housekeeping and the light.” The reporter noted, “Even the stove shines like a new dollar.”

In 1909, Charles Jenning of Provincetown became keeper earning $660 per year. His son Harold wrote about life at Monomoy Light in his book, A Lighthouse Family. They had a cow, horse and chickens. When taking their horse-drawn buggy across the mudflats to Chatham, they would have to get out to lead the horse around places where it could become mired.

On one of those trips in 1914, the keeper’s wedding ring slipped off becoming hopelessly lost in the mud. Every time thereafter he would take the same route searching for his ring. His wife told him that with the waves washing the area, it would never be found. On the day before Jenning’s transfer to Boston Light, he informed his wife he was going out to find his ring. What a shock for all when that day, find it he did!

To make the trip to Chatham easier, one enterprising keeper used special wide tires on his Model-T Ford, making one of the first dune buggies.

After the Cape Cod Canal opened in 1914, and the intensity of Chatham Light was increased, the need for Monomoy Point Light diminished. After the United States Engineers dredged Pollock Rip Channel to provide a straight channel through the shoals off Cape Cod, Pollock Rip light vessel and Monomoy Lighthouse were both discontinued on February 17, 1923, providing an annual saving of $26,269. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed, and the light station was sold to George Dunbar of Chatham for $500.

Later, the property passed to George Smith Bearse, a Chatham car dealer whose great-grandfather David Bearse had been a keeper at Monomoy. Upon visiting the property he was surprised to find that Navy planes had been using it for machine-gun target practice.

In 1964, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, who had purchased the buildings from the last private owners, restored the lighthouse and keeper’s house, but then sold the property to the federal government in 1977. Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy helped secure a federal grant in 1988 for a major overhaul of the lighthouse and the keepers dwelling spearheaded by the Lighthouse Preservation Society.

In late October 2009, the U.S. Department of Interior announced that $1.5 million in 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money would be used to shore up the Monomoy Point Lighthouse and keeper's dwelling. Oak Point Associates of Maine and New Hampshire was hired to assess needed repairs, and the project went out for bid in early 2010.

Campbell Construction Group of Peabody bid $2.1 for the project, more than the money available, so the work had to be scaled back. The tower will be restored and receive new glass panes in the lantern room. The keeper's dwelling will get a new roof, siding, windows, and a well for potable water. Wind and solar generators will allow the dwelling to be wired for electricity so that radiant heat can be used to prevent mold.

Since a storm in 1978, Monomoy has been accessible only by boat. South Monomoy has no human residents, no electricity, no paved roads, and no vehicles on the entire island. The only reminder of Monomoy’s inhabited past is the Monomoy Point Lighthouse, with its wooden keepers quarters, cast iron light tower, and the brick generator house. Its remote location makes Monomoy Light one of the least visited light stations in Massachusetts, which makes it all the better for the over ten species of birds that call it home, not to mention the 285 species that stop during migration.

Photo Gallery: 1

References

  1. The Lighthouses of New England, Edward Rowe Snow, 2005.
  2. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  3. Annual Report of the Light House Board, various years.
  4. “The Essential Chatham,” Corinne K. Hoexter, New York Times, August 26, 1990.
  5. “Monomoy Point Lighthouse: A Sturdy Massachusetts Survivor”, Jeremy D'Entremont, Lighthouse Digest, December 2006.
  6. “Monomoy”, G.H. Ballou, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1864.

Location: Located near the southern end of South Monomoy Island.
Latitude: 41.55934
Longitude: -69.99364

For a larger map of Monomoy Point Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: The Friends of Monomoy ((508) 945-0594) have offered overnight stays in the keeper's quarters on South Monomoy Island in the past, but in 2009 a message on their answering said that tours were suspended due to vandalism. The Monomoy Island Ferry offers a South Monomoy Island Day Trip, led by a naturalist, that includes a visit to the lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is located in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds open, tower closed. Dwelling open during overnight stays.

Find the closest hotels to Monomoy Point Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
We stayed overnight at the lighthouse on a trip offered by the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History (Note the museum no longer runs the trips). The hike to the lighthouse was not as bad as the literature made it seem, but believe every word that they say about poison ivy. The island is covered with it. The ivy is even encroaching on the island's few trails, making it next to impossible to not brush against it. I used ivy block and cleanser while on the island, but a couple of days after returning home a patch of red skin appeared on my wrist. Being quite allergic to poison ivy, it took about a month to disappear, but the experience at the lighthouse was worth the rash and the week-long, intense desire to scratch.

The trip is correctly billed as a wildlife trip. The naturalist who led our trip was Phil, and he was the perfect guide, cook, wildlife expert, and wagon puller. The island is home to a large colony of gulls, and who knew they could be so loud. During our visit down to the Powder Hole to observe wildlife, we saw swan, egrets, terns, night herons, oyster catchers, skimmers, and the illusive, protected piping plover. Even if you aren't a birder, Phil's enthusiasm is enough to make you a quick convert.

Having the chance to stay in the keeper's quarters, to climb the tower, to observe the wildlife, and to wander the island during a two-day stay as the island's only inhabitants is a memorable experience. The poison ivy rash goes away with time, but the memories of a stay at Monomoy will last a lifetime.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.